How to Redecorate Your Husband
Bergdorf Goodman Essay
When as a teenager I read Nathanael West’s amusingly bleak novel “Miss Lonelyhearts,” in which a young newspaper reporter is assigned to write the paper’s advice column, it never occurred to me that I might wind up like that. But, as they say, life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans, and I now write two advice columns, one read mostly by men and one read mostly by women. It’s a tough job, occasionally bringing me in touch with confusion and pathos, but there is some satisfaction in it. I do feel, for example, that I have helped reduce the incidence of baseball caps worn with overcoats in the urban landscape, as well as flip-flops as street shoes. But there’s still work to do! One theme that seems to come up continually is: How do I get my husband to change the way he dresses? Or, my wife or girlfriend hates the way I dress, what do I do?
Even I, often quoted as a style authority, have been scorned or pitied by women with regard to my clothing, and yet I bear no resentment. In fact, I hail my wife for throwing out my sweater-vests. I understand now. And I feel women’s pain. Every time I see a young couple out on the town, the girl nicely coiffed and made up, attired in a pretty little dress and heels, next to a guy skulking in jeans, basketball shoes and an untucked sport shirt, I desperately hope they are not together, that he is simply driving her somewhere, that he is her locksmith or her plumber, but sadly I know better. And so I understand the many women who think: He will be really fantastic after I change him. Men feel quite similarly, although it’s more like, She will be really great after she stops trying to change me.
We all know that old gripe: “All the good men are taken or gay.” They aren’t, ladies, I assure you. But it is true that often they just don’t look very good. Women obsessed with style occasionally dream of converting their stylish gay pal to the other team, but we all know how this ends. The guy sticks with his team. That’s the way of the world. But still women long for a stylish mate, and they deserve them. It’s a problem of our times, probably caused by lax parenting and bad television. So is it possible for a woman to change the guy that she’s got? She might not be able to change his hobbies, his politics or his sense of humor, but I believe that she can certainly give him a new coat of paint and get him out of those awful clothes.
First she has to understand that it’s probably not all his fault. The part of the parental curriculum dealing with getting dressed appropriately may have been omitted by a father, mother or both, who were very busy at work and forgot to teach him the culture of clothing. Such men tend to think of clothes as a way of avoiding nudity and other forms of embarrassment, or as camouflage, a way of blending in to stay out of trouble. This is why their default mode may be jeans, T-shirt, sweatpants or licensed merchandise from the sports teams to which they show allegiance. Comfort and anonymity or solidarity are their ideal, rather than individual style or self-expression. Perhaps this man, who may be an intellectual giant in his own field, was expected to learn how to dress from his peers or from the television that served as foster parent.
If your man was raised in an atmosphere that stressed hyper-masculinity and achievement, he may have even become convinced that caring about one’s appearance is a sign of femininity. Men often behave like herd animals, and this notion of not standing out may have been encouraged by his peers at school. School is where young men sometimes learn to keep their head down, so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. Even corporate life often encourages this group “style.” This conformist culture is behind the “salaryman” mode of the Japanese businessman. One is encouraged to meet the standard but that to surpass it may be taken as a sign of reckless ego. This is not only unfortunate, but it will get him nowhere. The sharp dressers are hidden away in the boardroom.
Many men dress in a plain, drab, un-thought-out way simply because they were raised with no sense of style or occasion. For others it is out of fear that a visible love of style detracts from the perception of masculinity. (If this applies to your man, trot out examples of famous dandies from the sports world. Clyde Frazier, Shaquille O’Neal, even Joe Namath.) Sometimes men want to look anonymous to keep their head down lest they be singled out—this is unlikely to lead to advancement in business or society. You might point out that the best-dressed young executives are those fearless ones most likely to advance. Look for the good cufflinks, and you’ll see tomorrow’s VP.
But how do you bring about real wardrobe change in your man? Hopefully your husband already has a mother (and is no longer following her orders), so he doesn’t need another one. Nor does he need another boss. You could shop for him, up to a point. If something comes as a gift, it is less likely to be taken as critical judgment or the cure to a problem. My wife’s gifts actually changed my horizons of what I could get away with. So when he tries it on, that sport coat he would never have picked out himself, go overboard in praise. Try, “My God, you look ten years younger.” Or “ten pounds thinner!” Or both. That’s hard to resist for men over thirty.
You can also take him shopping, and there you can make suggestions, but you don’t want to demean or browbeat him in front of the salesman the way you do at home; in fact, it’s unwise to give the slightest hint of condescension. Try getting him to bond with the best-dressed salesman. Your ultimate goal is to get him to eventually shop well unsupervised. If he needs a civilian personal shopper, you might try to covertly enlist as a mentor a stylish male mutual friend, but he must be trustworthy and able to keep your secret. What you really want is for your man to get the right taste and the right idea, if not by concept, by contagion.
The very best method of having your way with him style-wise is flattery. I don’t mean you should flatter him promiscuously. Just acknowledge it when he does something right, even if it’s by accident. Don’t condemn his schlumpitude; reward his moments of nattiness. An even better tactic is to flatter the men whose style you wish he possessed. I don’t necessarily mean that you should flatter them directly (which may be difficult if you wish he looked like George or Brad). You don’t have to make him jealous by direct flirtation, but you can easily admire other men’s style in his presence. “Phil looks so sexy in that Tom Ford tux.” Watch his face to see if it reddens.
Humor also works. If your man wears things that are too young for him, ask him if he’s decided yet on who he’s taking to the prom. If your man wears things that are too big for him, say “I like your suit. I saw one just like it on The Biggest Loser.” If your man wear things that are too small for him, ask if the boy’s department is really that much cheaper. If he’s overly casual, tell him that you’re afraid that where you’re going someone will think he’s your driver. Or that the invitation said “casual” not “unconscious.” Tell him how beautifully your gynecologist dresses. Admire his boss’s tie. Look at his attorney’s feet and tell him you can always tell an elegant and successful man from his beautiful shoes.
It is best, however, that you avoid insulting your man too directly or viciously. If he has some particularly irritating habit of dress, it’s sometimes better to call it out on someone else. Perhaps he is fond of baseball caps, which are best worn when actually engaged in that sport, and he may even occasionally wear it with the visor facing to the rear, thinking this is a sporty look that gives him a certain je ne sais quoi street cred. Next time you find yourself snuggling during that male version of Sex and the City, Entourage, mention that you just don’t understand why a good-looking girl would go out with a guy in a baseball cap. Or if he walks around in an untucked shirt, say I think I saw that same shirt on that actor, you know . . . the guy from Mall Cop.
A woman may occasionally feel some desperation when confronted with the love of her life wearing a team jersey bearing the name of some athlete he seems to have a crush on. She should remember that she is not alone. It is probably better that he hero-worship a Jet, Giant, Yankee or Met than a twenty-three-year-old female rapper or a porn star who tweets. But you are not required to indulge this form of dress up. As I often counsel my fellow man, if we are created in the image and likeness of God, should we be wearing Steelers jerseys in public?
If suggestion, however, is just not working, don’t be afraid to take direct action. If there is something he wears that you absolutely hate, my advice is: Throw it out. Secretly. Don’t put it in the trash at home. Take it out of the house and dispose of it, so as not to have witnesses or leave any evidence. Then, when it goes missing, deny, deny, deny. “I’m sorry, dear, you must have left it at the gym. I saw it just the other day.” The same strategy should be used on any comfort fetishes that serve as pathetic security blankets for him. The moth-eaten sweater, the tattered frat tee—out with them! If he suspects you, tell him they were probably stolen. You don’t find patina like that every day!
No matter how hopelessly faithful you are, your best shot of improving him is in expressing the sartorial lust in your own heart. Once a man grasps that a well-cut jacket, jeans that fit just right or luxurious shoes have the power to actually excite a woman, you may have a shot at transforming that hunk into a hero. BG
GLENN O’BRIEN edits the words in Bergdorf Goodman Magazine. His new book, How to Be a Man, was published by Rizzoli. He recently purchased the complete Domus magazine and a deep fryer. He has recently launched a website with a blog (http://glennobrien.com) and promises to keep it updated regularly – once it’s up.